Linda Alper

Marjorie, in her prime

Jordan Harrison's futuristic fantasy about the blurry line between people and artificial intelligence gets a sterling run at Artists Rep

Walter has a curious affect, in more ways than one. As he talks with Marjorie, an 85-year-old woman whose mind isn’t what it used to be, he’s gently inquisitive, apparently eager to learn about her and, somewhat paradoxically, about himself as well. As the “Prime” in Jordan Harrison’s stimulating play Marjorie Prime continuing through March 5 at Artists Repertory Theatre, he speaks with an odd mixture of intimacy and detachment, and a patience that seems at first professional, then preternatural. He tells stories in a way that sounds casual yet somehow rote. And when he’s stumped by something, instead of shrugging or saying, “I dunno,” he replies stiffly, “I’m afraid I don’t have that information.”

Then too, there’s just something about the way he looks. He’s clean-cut and handsome, yet unremarkably so. That is, until you notice the faint sparkle that shimmers about his plain brown sportcoat and neatly trimmed hair. It’s as though he’s the image of an ideal man, ever-so-slightly pixelated.

O’Brien and Harder: memories lost and gained. Photo: John Rudoff

And though he looks a half-century younger than Marjorie, he’s not just Walter, he’s her Walter, her late husband Walter. Or at least he’s learning to be.

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Making American theater 1940s again

Reviews: Center Stage's "A Streetcar Named Desire" and Artists Rep's "The Skin of Our Teeth" revive 1940s classics. Surprise: they're contemporary, too.

“Stella!” the woolly mammoth roars, and the American culture of the 1940s escapes into the 21st century by the skin of its teeth. Surprisingly, it feels right at home.

Portland Center Stage and Artists Repertory Theatre opened the final shows of their current seasons over the weekend with classic pieces that bookend that strange and transformative decade of American history. Thornton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth (at Artists Rep) opened on Broadway in October 1942, less than a year after the United States entered World War II. Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire (at Center Stage) opened in December 1947, as the nation and the world were still getting used to the war’s end and trying to establish some new sort of normalcy.

Diedrie Henry as Blanche, Demetrius Grosse as Stanley: power and desire. Photo: Patrick Weishampel/blankeye.tv

Diedrie Henry as Blanche, Demetrius Grosse as Stanley: power and desire. Photo: Patrick Weishampel/blankeye.tv

By far the more optimistic play is the one actually created in wartime, Wilder’s audacious comic overview of humankind’s stumbling progress from its beginnings. The Skin of Our Teeth is something of a rallying cry in bleak times, a promise that even when we take five steps backward, we usually manage to make them up and take a tentative sixth step forward. A Streetcar Named Desire is steeped in the realities that settle in after the crisis has been overcome, and the sense of progress that seemed to sustain us seems suddenly to have been illusory, a curdled dream: how quickly we are wired to forget. Restless for Utopia now and embittered that it doesn’t magically appear, we make ourselves miserable. It is part of Williams’ genius that the misery he creates is so attractive.

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At Artists Rep, ‘The Price’ is right

Arthur Miller's old-fashioned American realist drama bridges the decades and makes itself unsettlingly at home in today's culture

Watching Artists Rep’s finely pitched new production of Arthur Miller’s play The Price is like listening to a classic piece of chamber music you haven’t heard in a long time: four voices, integrated yet distinct, rising and falling and weaving, sometimes in harmony, sometimes strikingly dissonant, each voice surging into the lead, then receding, in a constant interplay. It’s a welcome reminder of the beauties of the mid-20th century American realist theater, those works from the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s by the likes of Miller, Tennessee Williams (whose Suddenly, Last Summer has also just opened in town, at Shaking the Tree), Lillian Hellman, William Inge, the latecomer Edward Albee and the like, each drawing in his or her own way from the pattern set by Eugene O’Neill. As different from one another as they were alike, these writers nevertheless shared some crucial qualities. Shaped by the Great Depression and World War II, they were engaged socially, concerned with the links between private and public behavior: “Mendacity!,” Big Daddy’s roar in Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, might have been a unifying cry. They believed in the lyrical and persuasive power of language. And they made well-crafted plays, dramas that were structured to seem inevitable both emotionally and theatrically.

Costa (left) and Elich, calculating values. Photo: Owen Carey

Costa (left) and Elich, calculating values. Photo: Owen Carey

The Price, whose title is meant both literally and metaphorically, arrived a little later than Miller’s run of great plays, opening on Broadway in 1968. It lost that season’s Tony Award to Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, perhaps signaling a shift in public appetite toward a brighter, more playful and irreverent style of show. Stoppard, Pinter, Shepard and others still knew their Greeks, who were essential to O’Neill and the post-O’Neill generation, but they were tipping toward postmodernism: rearranging the pieces, joking with the verities, dabbling in creative destruction. The Price still has a ’50s earnestness in its voice, that sense that every thought and action has intense moral significance. It’s a play of slightly before its time, and as I watched the four fine actors at Artists Rep I was aware that (a) I was watching a period piece, and (b) it was a thrilling experience. Good theater can fuse the past and present into a vital contemporary moment.

The play is something like a Bartók quartet, an immersion into intimate dissonance, in which clashing ideas are bound into an exciting tension tinged with sadness, and resolutions are fleeting but profound. It opens in a well-worn New York walkup apartment, stuffed with furniture from an earlier age (the set is by Jack O’Brien), the muted bleats of city traffic (sound by Sharath Patel) seeping in from the outside world. Victor Franz (Michael Elich), a lean and tired-looking New York cop, walks in, looks around, cranks an old Victrola, puts on a comedy record that consists of peals of laughter. He’s soon joined by his wife, Esther (Linda Alper), wearing a stylish dress suit that looks like one of Nancy Reagan’s (costumes by Alison Heryer) and an air of exasperation. We’ve dropped in on an old argument, a long-brewing disappointment; years of affection and regret underlie a conversation we know is intense, even if we’re not sure immediately what it’s all about. Soon enough, we learn it’s about money: at long last Victor’s getting ready to sell off the contents of his dead parents’ apartment, and Esther, who is tired of living on a policeman’s pay, dearly hopes he’ll push for a good price. She wants some nice things and freedom from worry. Victor, who believes he could have been a big man in science if he hadn’t left college to care for his father, wants his pride.

Mendelson (left), Alper, Elich: all in the family. Photo: Owen Carey

Mendelson (left), Alper, Elich: all in the family. Photo: Owen Carey

Victor and Esther are joined by the booming brass presence of Gregory Solomon (Joseph Costa), an almost nonagenarian furniture appraiser and dealer, who wheezes up the stairway with an air of bumptious authority and a briefcase packed with snacks. Solomon knows the business; Solomon knows about people; Solomon wants to cut a deal. And just about when things are settled, in walks the fourth member of this dissonant quartet: Walter Franz (Michael Mendelson), Victor’s ultra-successful doctor brother, whom he hasn’t seen or spoken to in 16 years, and whom Victor blames for the way his life went sour. Walter has a deal to offer, too, a plan that would pad the price considerably.

Miller’s setup is expert, his balancing of the economic and emotional scales keen. Prices, as it turns out, aren’t always measured in coin, and a modest cost in capital terms might be a very steep one in morality and pride. Things get knotted up, and some things don’t show up on the balance sheet. From this point, it’s up to the director and actors to carry the play, and Artists Rep’s ensemble, directed sensitively by Adriana Baer, does it beautifully.

A huge amount of experience is on this stage, and the sum for the audience is an uncommon amount of pleasure: these are four veteran actors who’ve been around, and grown, and ripened well, and know how to burrow deeply inside a role and play it full. Elich carries a slump of anger and repressed pride to go with Victor’s genuine sense of righteousness. Alper is somehow sharp and soft at once, warm and capable and just about an inch from an explosion. Mendelson, who grows ever more graceful with age, is surprisingly embracing in what could be (but is definitely not here) a cool and curdling role. And Costa dances just this side of caricature as Solomon without ever crossing the line: a bit of a shaman, a bit of a snake-oil salesman, a bit of a Borscht Belt comic, a bit of a chastened and lonely ancient man, the unlikely and exuberant outsider straw that stirs this volatile family drink.

This is Victor’s story, in the end, his discoveries and decisions to be made, and as the play ends it’s uncertain what price he has and hasn’t paid; what’s he’s cost himself and what he’s gained. The composition concludes with more dissonance than resolution, and strangely, that feels right: something deep has happened. The questions hover, and do not settle. Victor, and Arthur Miller, and this production, ask: What matters? What is the truth? What should be done? In that old-fashioned and ever-contemporary American realist way, the questions linger long after the light fades, unanswered and unanswerable.

*

The Price continues at Artists Rep through April 26. Ticket and schedule information are here.

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The Bard’s great American play

Portland Shakespeare Project's provocative 'Tempest' explores a new land of conquest and colonization

“We like to think of the old-fashioned American classics as children’s books. Just childishness, on our part.”

These are the first lines in The Spirit of Place, the opening essay of Studies in Classic American Literature, D.H. Lawrence’s brilliant headfirst dive into the soul and cultural compulsions of the invented nation as evidenced in the creations of its early nativist storytellers, and they came to mind once again, for a few reasons, upon seeing Portland Shakespeare Project’s new production of The Tempest.

Kerrigan and Alper as antagonists Caliban and Prospera. Photo: David Kinder

Kerrigan and Alper as antagonists Caliban and Prospera. Photo: David Kinder

First, although The Tempest will never be mistaken for The Comedy of Errors or The Merry Wives of Windsor, its late-period reverie is counterbalanced by a brisk and overt playfulness that PSP’s production captures rollickingly – a childishness, if you will, to go with the familiar magic that so many of Shakespeare’s plays share with fairy tales.

Second, in addition to its undeniable place as a masterwork of the English dramatic literary canon, The Tempest has long struck me as a peculiarly American sort of work, the Shakespearean play that most clearly draws from early seventeenth century European acknowledgment and limited understanding of the so-called “new world.”

Third, Lawrence himself hinted at an almost soul-connection between The Tempest and the makers, or transgressors, of the new land.“Ca Ca Caliban/ Get a new master, be a new man,” he chants in The Spirit of Place, the doorway into a book that relentlessly explores the creation of the American character through the writings of Franklin, Crèvecoeur, Cooper, Poe, Hawthorne, Dana, Melville, and Whitman. I’m not sure how he missed Twain, whose satiric burlesques so effectively ripped aside the curtain of American “democratic” orthodoxy, but there you go. New masters, or no masters. New men, whatever the cost.

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No hallucination: it’s a high ‘Life’

Artists Rep's exquisite, sweet and measured 'The Quality of Life' is another highlight in a sterling Portland season

When Jeannette offers a hit of pot, her straitlaced cousin Dinah doesn’t know what to expect. “Will I hallucinate?,” she asks innocently.

“It’s a gentle, inquisitive experience,” Neil, Jeannette’s husband, reassures her. The same can be said for The Quality of Life, a thoughtful, funny play by Jane Anderson that approaches questions both contemporary and timeless, and, in a perfectly balanced production at Artists Rep, counts as yet another high point in a Portland theater season that’s already had more than its usual share.

Mars, Mendelson, Alper: laughing against the pain. Photo: Owen Carey

Mars, Mendelson, Alper: laughing against the pain. Photo: Owen Carey

Gentle and inquisitive also are good words to describe Neil and Jeannette, a long-married and deeply loving couple enjoying what you might call a provisional lifestyle in Northern California. A canyon fire has claimed their house, with Neil’s years of academic research inside, and they’re residing in a yurt, surrounded by their own magic forest of debris – charred remnants of their avocado and fig trees, unrecognizably warped bits of the few possessions they could find, now strewn about as accidental art objects.

Perhaps their cheerful equanimity is the result of resignation, or maybe of the pot – which in any case they use for more than just taking the edge off: It’s the last medicine doing Neil any good, as he faces down terminal cancer.

“I’m growing prize-winning tumors here; I’m going to enter them in the state fair,” he jokes, after extolling the “heirloom pot” he inhales from a vaporizer.

The plight of Neil and Jeannette is laid out at the start, but it’s not them we meet first. The play opens with a brief scene in Ohio, where Dinah and her husband Bill decide to visit, even though they’re trying to cope with troubles of their own, the grim nature of which we learn only in dribbles.

Both couples are trying to negotiate grief in their own ways, so we know that the playwright is conducting a sort of qualitative comparison. And as soon as they get together, distinctions and divisions begin to show. Neil and Jeannette are free-spirited free-thinkers, conspicuously at ease with their circumstances and with each other. Dinah is agreeable and eager to please, Bill is dull and practical, and there’s a vaguely uneasy distance between them. Bill so objects to his hosts’ marijuana use that he retreats to his car to listen to a baseball game. And when religion enters the conversation – perhaps you can guess which couple are the churchgoers – the sides are clearly drawn.

From time to time, Anderson’s script starts to seem like another point-scoring game between the two sides of our current cultural divide: Midwest/Left Coast, red/blue, conservative/liberal, dour Xtian/happy heathen. In addition to medical marijuana, the issue menu includes the “death with dignity” movement, the power and perils of faith, the balancing of tolerance with moral and social principles, and so on.

With such an agenda, the danger of didacticism lurks, like the coyotes that prey on wayward pets near what used to be Neil and Jeannette’s house. But Anderson eventually complicates and subverts our easy expectations for how these characters think and behave. She even gives Bill, the play’s resident prig, the best line: “Don’t insult my good intentions just because I acted like an ass.”

Yet all along these characters have felt like real people, very much like people we all know. And credit for that goes to the emotionally scrupulous direction by Allen Nause and to a well-matched cast that digs hard and deep for truthfulness while making it look easy.

Mars, Fisher-Welsh: couple in crisis. Photo: Owen Carey

Mars, Fisher-Welsh: couple in crisis. Photo: Owen Carey

Oregon Shakespeare Festival veteran Linda Alper, now a Portlander and Artists Rep regular, fairly sparkles as Jeannette, by turns sassy, empathetic, caustic, tender, vulnerable and wise. Michael Mendelson delivers one of the finest performances of his long and acclaimed tenure in town, quietly and subtly showing us Neil’s weariness and pain, his alacrity and humor, and hints of his submerged rage and fear. Together they make an utterly believable couple, comfortable and natural in their interactions whether laughing or squabbling.

Susannah Mars lets us see the way Dinah is constricted by convention yet yearns to live authentically by her own lights. And from behind the almost buffoonish rectitude of Bill, Michael Fisher-Welsh presents a warm, deeply sympathetic character, the alternating surges of consternation and concern calibrated just so.

Much of what the play mulls comes under the umbrella of what these days we call quality of life issues. But there’s a reason the title has that definite article. The quality of life, after all, is, well, life.

And that’s what this exquisite production offers us in something that feels very close to the real thing.

Broadway’s new season in Portland, ‘The Tempest,’ grants galore

Imago's Pinter, Pander at Russo, Broadway Across America's new season, Linda Alper in 'The Tempest'

Henk Pander watercolors and Mel Katz wall works are at Laura Russo Gallery this month. This is Pander's "Lily Lake, Steens Mountain"

Henk Pander watercolors and Mel Katz wall works are at Laura Russo Gallery this month. This is Pander’s
“Lily Lake, Steens Mountain”

I saw a crackerjack version of The Caretaker at Imago Theatre last night, and though I’ll be reviewing it at length (gulp!) later, I just wanted you to know, if you’re in the mood for some Pinter. OK, maybe the “mood for Pinter” actually rarely strikes, but sometimes you find you actually need some Pinter once you see some. This show will not disappoint.

The rest of today’s News & Notes is further dominated by theater, one way or another. And away we go…

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